Tuesday, May 26, 2015
“Zoe … Zoe,” I called in a sing-song voice over the upstairs bannister, wondering where our three-year-old had gotten to. I was busy stripping beds and changing sheets with our five-year-old when I realized I hadn’t heard from her in a longer-than-typical stretch of 10 minutes.
“I’m ok, Mom,” she trilled back. “Don’t come down.”
I dropped my linens and raced to the bottom of the stairs, knowing her reply could only mean one thing — mischief. I rounded the corner into the kitchen. What in the world? …
There she sat, ensconced on a tall kitchen stool, spoon in one hand, bottle of chocolate syrup in the other. It was 9:00 a.m. I watched with mock horror and hidden amusement as she alternately took bites of Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream straight from the carton and chugged gulps of Hershey’s like a big brown baby bottle.
When I see articles that offer “four ways parents can teach their children independence” or “a better approach to raising self-starters,” I wince. What kids need are not more lessons in independence, but parents who are willing to do the hard work of teaching them how to be responsible.
One of our Hershey’s chugging daughter’s first sentences was simple but profound, “I do it!”. (Who hasn’t heard that from a toddler!) As soon as she was able, she was determined to do things her way, by herself. Now that we’ve been through the terrible twos and “therrible threes” with four different children and four distinct personalities, it’s clear that she’s not an anomaly. Babies are born with the hardwiring for independence. It’s not just an American thing. Of course they need someone to do everything for them when they first appear on the scene, but within a short time, they’re striving to do things on their own.
Certainly we don’t want children who never learn how to care for themselves; who are dependent on us forever. There’s a host of life skills we need to teach them in the 18 years we have them in our care. But independence shouldn’t be our goal. We should want our children to do things by themselves, but not for themselves. This is the key distinction between children who are independent and those who are responsible.
To be independent is, as the dictionary defines it, “to be free from outside control; not depending on another’s authority.” Such is the root of our American culture. We were defined early-on by our breaking-free from authority. But those leading the fledgling country knew they needed not merely to break free from Mother England, but also to govern themselves well. This is what made our revolution so different from the anarchy in France. Today, the spirit of liberty without responsibility is widely affirmed. It’s the different between self-government and anarchy; the difference between a young man leaving home to spend his 20s amusing himself, and one leaving home to find a wife, form a family, set up a home, and get a job to provide for those in his care. It’s the difference between kids who use their abilities to serve themselves, and those who use their abilities to serve others. Wanting to be free from outside control is a pervasive problem, but it’s not new.
The desire to cast off restraint and be free from authority is what got Adam and Eve in trouble (see Genesis 3). As their offspring, It’s what still plagues us (Romans 5:12). How often do we pull away from God’s way and say with our actions, “I do it!” We grown ups can be a lot like toddlers. We’re just better at camouflaging our attempts at independence with polite conversation and socially acceptable vices. What kids need are not more lessons in independence, but parents who model responsibility — acting for the good of others, to the glory of God.
We need to teach our children that responsibility is something you develop, something you earn, and finally, something you owe.
Responsibility means being “capable of being trusted.” This trust is both taught and earned. Parents must help their little ones grow in responsibility by giving them things to care for and tasks to perform, simple at first, and increasing in complexity and significance as they display growing aptitude. You don’t start teaching your kids to cook by handing them the kitchen torch and the butcher knife. But if you never move them past the mixing spoon and an apron, they’ll be stunted. Along the way, they’ll get shells in the batter, spill milk on the counter, and dust the floor with flour. But coaching them through their clumsiness, with patience and endurance, and helping them develop skills, is a necessary part of training. Eventually they need to be able to use the sharp knife. Start by teaching them to be faithful in little, so they will be capable later on of being faithful in much (Luke 19:17).
Responsibility also means “having an obligation to do something, having control over or care for someone as part of one’s job or role.” This obligation is a privilege given to children who can be trusted with the care of others. Watching younger siblings must be more than a way to earn a few dollars.
I found recently needing to go back to our daughter and explain that the “kid sitting” we’re asking her to do next week isn’t about earning a portion of the monthly allowance we give her, but about helping out with her younger brothers as part of our family. It’s what family members do. But it’s not enough for her to make sure they don’t burn the house down while we’re out. She is responsible for her little brothers when we’re not home. She is called to care for them. To do for them, in love, what we do for her; and this, not to earn a paycheck, but to glorify God.
The most pressing aspect of responsibility is being “morally accountable for one’s behavior.” It’s not optional; as if you hope one day to become responsible. It is reality. Even if we’re not responsible in the sense of being trustworthy, we are responsible in that we will all one day give an account. We are, from the day we’re born, morally accountable to God for our behavior. He is the One in authority we will have to report to, He is the One we will answer to for our every action. This is a life-shaping, eternity-altering reality that we must impress upon our children. And it’s no less true for how we carry out our responsibilities as mothers and fathers. We teach them as much, if not more, in how we act as in what we say.
It’s tempting, once kids stop needing constant physical intervention — diaper changing, bottle feeding, burping, potty training, and on and on — to hit auto pilot on parenting. But about the time kids no longer need our hands and feet to do things for them, they need our hearts and minds to engage in things with them. It takes time and focused attention to develop responsible children. We’re tempted to hurry them on toward independence — less work for Mom and Dad! But just when Jr. is 16 and asking for the keys to the car and you’re thinking, Praise be, I don’t have to drive him around anymore!, is the time he needs your intentional discipleship to finish the work of preparing him for adulthood.
God has given human beings made in His image the ability to respond to Him. We are response-able. One of the means He uses for calling children to respond to Him in faith is parents who train their children for increasing responsibility by helping them to look ahead to the accounting that will come, in light of the gospel of grace. They need to know that in themselves, they are weak and unable to do anything. But they are not left to themselves. Jesus says,
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:4-5).
This isn’t just about preparing our kids to move out and get an apartment, go to college, or even get married, it’s about preparing them for eternity. May we take our cues from Paul and not grow weary in helping our children to grow in “the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood [and womanhood], to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ …” (Ephesians 4:13b-14a).
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